Urasawa is a restaurant that you wouldn't know was there,
unless you knew it was there. It's located on the corner of Wilshire and
Luckily for me, I've known about Urasawa's whereabouts for
quite some time, reading about the restaurant in various magazines and food
blogs over the last couple of years. But because of the insanely high tab at
Urasawa (the most expensive in
Well, after a year of planning and saving, my wife and I amassed enough coin for us to eat at Urasawa. And besides, it was my 30th birthday.
Having a birthday in December would be enough to sully the spirits and harden the hearts of even the most cheerful individuals, what with all the holidays going on to distract from any birthday celebrations. I am no different. On top of all that, my older brother also has a December birthday, three days before mine. December during my childhood consisted of sharing the same birthday/Christmas gift with my brother. Sharing is supposed to be good. But it's really not. All it leads to are punches in your stomach and blood in your pee because it's someone else's turn to play with said birthday/Christmas gift. Not good times.
So needless to say, as I've gotten older I've never been one to make a big deal out of my birthday (and I've gotten better reflexes to avoid punches in the stomach). And although I don't think turning the big Three Oh was a big deal either, it was a good excuse to try a new dining experience.
To get into Urasawa, you must take a mysterious elevator up to the second floor. When you exit the elevator, all that separates you from true culinary bliss is a blue curtain and a sliding wooden door.
My wife and I had 6 o'clock reservations and we were the first ones to enter the inner sanctum of Urasawa--a small 10-seat only bar. That's right. Urasawa only serves 10 people a night, no more, no less. Actually, there could be less than 10 if there are no-shows. And if you make reservations to Urasawa, and end up not showing up without giving 24-hours notice, your credit card will be charged $200 per person on your reservation. Why the crazy charge?
Because the selection of food is hand-picked by Urasawa
himself the very morning of your reservation—the array of dishes you will eat
are comprised of the very best ingredients he can get his hands on. There is no ala carte at Urasawa. It is a prix-fixe meal and you will eat whatever Urasawa selects that
day. Most of the fish Urasawa selects is
flown in directly from
When we sat down at the bar made of solid cypress wood, Urasawa's assistant was busy doing some prep work.
Soon after we sat, Urasawa appeared from the kitchen and came to greet us. He asked us our names and then he introduced himself as Hiro. So I went ahead and addressed him as Hiro-San the rest of the night (respect yo’ elders, sucka!). He also asked the both of us if there were things we wouldn’t eat or if we had food allergies. The wife and I both said “No” and were ready for whatever Hiro-San had to offer.
Hiro-San then began working on our first course, Goma Tofu, which he topped off with 24-Karat gold leaf.
Yes, the gold is edible, but it has no flavor. Yes, I scanned my deuces for the next couple of days, and I found no gold floaters. Yes, I am sorry for making a disgusting joke. Yes, I am really 30. Back to dinner…
The Goma Tofu looked like a dumpling floating in broth. Inside the tofu dumpling was Cod Fish Sperm Sack. I’m not kidding. The tofu-encased sperm sack was incredibly rich and smooth. It was unlike anything I had ever tasted in my life. I never thought I would ever type these next few words, but…
The Sperm Sack tasted wonderful.
In all seriousness, I’m only on the first course of this review, and I’m already at a loss of words. I don’t think I could properly describe how each of the individual courses of this meal tasted (by the way, when I say course, the wife and I each had our own serving of whatever Hiro-San prepared—we didn’t eat off of the same plate). My wife and I were blown away by everything we ate. Even the sperm sack.
Our second course was Ikura (Salmon Roe) on top of some kind of egg custard laced with crab, Uni (Sea Urchin Roe), and again Cod Fish Sperm sack. The orange spheres of salmon roe were so fresh, and delicate, each of them bursting in my mouth with just a hint of brininess—these Ikura were far superior from the usual too-salty balls served at run-of-the-mill sushi joints. I couldn’t pick out the individual flavors of the crab, uni, or sperm sack, but as a whole, this course was again outstanding.
Our next course was a small sampling of shellfish and Japanese pickled vegetables. In the picture above, the black object topped with fresh green wasabi at the left is abalone innards: a chewy, yet yielding piece of abalone liver that had the concentrated flavor of abalone. Then, moving counter-clockwise in the above picture there is a woody and earthy Matsutake mushroom, a snow pea, Japanese radish, an aged egg (I’m guessing at that, I don’t really remember what it was), a shrimp, burdock root, and a cucumber filled with baby shrimp.
Meanwhile, Hiro-San was busy working on our sashimi course:
Our sashimi was beautifully presented on an ice sculpture. We had toro tuna, red snapper, and I’m not sure about the last fish on the right. But whatever it was, it was a testament to Hiro-San’s precise knife skills as the flesh of the fish was scored to yield tiny pillars topped with silvery skin.
Around this time, a second couple showed up. Hiro-San went through the same routine of asking them their names, introducing himself, and asking if they had any food aversions. They both said “No” and started on their meal. Because we were a few courses ahead of this couple, it was fun to watch their reactions as they experienced the same divine foods we had just tasted.
Although it’s hard to pick a favorite course, the next course we were served was at the top of my list:
That, my friends, is a hunk of Matsusaka Beef from
Anyhoo, Hiro-San had a small grill that consisted of a bowl filled with hot coals, on top of this bowl was a grate. Hiro-San then lopped off a hunk of fat from the Matsusaka Beef and then rubbed it on the grates of the hot grill.
He basically used the beef’s own fat as lubricant for the grill, so that the beef wouldn’t stick, and also to torture me. He then grilled small pieces of the beef for maybe 1 minute total, and then topped it with freshly grated yuzu zest and freshly grated wasabi.
Hiro-San also served the beef with Okinawan salt (Japanese sea salt with traces of seaweed in it).
The Matsusaka beef was other-worldly. The fat, salt, citrus, and wasabi all melted
together into a fleeting experience that I knew I should savor as long as
possible. It was good. After nearly dying from pure ecstasy, I asked
Hiro-San the difference between Kobe Beef and Matsusaka Beef. He told us they were basically the same type
of beef (wagyu) but that they came from different places in
After our Matsusaka Beef course, I decided to slow down on
the picture-taking. It was distracting
to me and I felt like I was concentrating too much on pictures and not enough
on the food. And besides, it would take
me forever if I attempted to describe every dish we had that night. But let me try putting things in perspective. Following our Matsusaka Beef was a course of
tofu skin, crab brain, and gingko nuts, and then a shabu-shabu course of foie
gras, scallops, and more beef, and then a course of
Before he set down the first piece of sushi for us, Hiro-San told us that we must eat it immediately so that the fish remained as fresh as possible. We were happy to oblige as we plucked up the sushi with our fingers as soon as he put them down. I didn’t take a picture of every piece of sushi, but by me and my wife’s estimates, we think we had 12-15 different types that night, including toro (the “King of Sushi” as Hiro-San told us), shrimp, baby shrimp, squid, giant clam, and many others I can’t remember the names of. Needless to say, the sushi Hiro-San prepared for us was the best I’ve had. Ever. Evaaaah!
A Little Side Story
I was on top of the world during our sushi courses. It was my 30th birthday and I was at a restaurant I had dreamed of experiencing for so long. And then, a group of four people came into the restaurant: A father and mother, a 20-something daughter who looked like she got shot with Homer Simpson’s makeup gun (it was set for “whore”), and a friend of the daughter.
They were a loud bunch, especially the daughter who more or less commanded her father to order champagne as soon as they sat down. And when they sat down Hiro-San again asked their names, introduced himself, and asked about their food aversions. They all said “No”.
However, when this group was presented with their first course (the same Goma Tofu my wife and I were served), the daughter had this disgusted look on her face and just pushed her bowl aside. Besides picking at the gold leaf, she didn’t even try the dish.
Now, I'm a pretty observant guy, and I like to think that I can read people well. And even though Hiro-San remained expressionless, I could still see in his face that his blood was boiling at this point. But nothing was said.
Then the second dish was brought out to this group, and again the daughter picked at it and pushed it aside without trying a bite. Then, Hiro-San could take no more and said to the group, “How do you know about my restaurant?”
To which the father replied, “Everyone says such good things about it here. We’ve heard your food is good. Don’t mind my daughter, she’s just a picky eater.”
I then nudged my wife with my elbow because I knew something awesome was about to happen.
Hiro-San then raised his voice and said, “This is Japanese
restaurant, but like Burger King, have it your way!” Hiro-San then leaped over
the counter and proceeded to beat the girl with his flying fist of
Is this thing on?
Ok, that didn’t really happen. This is what Hiro-San really said:
“If it’s so good, why don’t you eat my food? This is TRADITIONAL Japanese Restaurant! I don’t have spicy tuna or tempura here!”
Although, he didn’t directly say it, Hiro-San was basically putting the daughter on blast for rudely snubbing his food, and everyone knew he was pissed about it.
After that, it got very uncomfortable at Urasawa. There was an awkward silence for a good 5-Mississippi count. Then the daughter said to her friend, “I think I’m offended. I don’t have to eat his food if I don’t want, we’re paying for it anyways. We should just go to Geisha House or something.”
The girl then started pleading with her father that they should leave and spend their money somewhere else if she was going to be forced to eat food she didn’t like.
I was hoping Hiro-San had a Hattori Hanzo sword at the ready with which to behead this disrespectful and rude whore of a girl. But he didn’t. Sad, that.
After a bit of hemming and hawing, the father leaned over to my wife and apologized for his daughter and said he was sorry if our night was ruined. He then pulled aside one of Urasawa’s servers and whispered something in her ear. The server said something in Japanese to Hiro-San, he replied very gruffly and waved his hand. The server then brought out the check, and the father paid, and off they went. I’m not sure how much they were charged, but I’m sure it was for more than just two courses and champagne.
The reason I wanted to share this story is because I thought
it a very good example of what to expect from Urasawa. As if you couldn’t already tell from some of
the courses I described above, Urasawa is indeed, a VERY TRADITIONAL Japanese
restaurant serving Kaiseki-style delicacies. Please don’t go to Urasawa expecting spicy tuna or
After they had left, I asked Hiro-San if that sort of thing happens often. To my surprise, he said it was the first time (I figured he must get a difficult customer at least once every now and then). But Hiro-San stressed to me that that is why he makes sure to first ask his customers if there is anything they would not eat, and then he would try to accommodate them as much as possible.
He then told us that he makes ZERO profit because of the
Hiro-San told us that he just loves doing what he does, and he loves serving his own unique style of Japanese food to his customers (some of whom save and wait for months just to get a chance at a reservation). It’s not about money with Hiro-San, it’s about passion and culture.
And that is why I was just so disturbed by this girl’s attitude. I’m not really one to judge, I'm probably the least mature 30 year old I know (I made a poop joke just a few paragraphs back). But I at least have enough sense to not completely disrespect someone else's culture because daddy's got a few Benjamins and a Black card in his wallet (my dad actually has a couple of Hamiltons and a laminated picture of his middle digit in his wallet, go figure).
Anyways, after that whole debacle the vibe returned to normal at Urasawa. Hiro-San was back to being friendly and jovial and my wife and I enjoyed a few more pieces of sushi. Then we had our dessert courses. The first of which was Tamago—a sweet Japanese egg omelet. Hiro-San’s Tamago looked so pedestrian and ordinary and resembled a cubed piece of any sponge or pound cake, but this Tamago was anything but ordinary. It was light and airy, but yet was dense enough to satisfy our sweet tooths. It was incredible.
But that was only our first dessert course. Yes, there is more. We were then served sesame ice cream that was paired with matcha tea.
The sesame ice cream was so smooth and sweet and tasted almost like peanut butter. It was a perfect foil to the gritty and bitter matcha.
Our last course was an aged Japanese persimmon.
I’ve had the harder types of persimmon before, the ones that have a texture and firmness similar to apples. But I’ve never had the soft variety before. The persimmon at Urasawa was very soft and had an almost marmalade-y texture when I dug into it with my spoon. It wasn’t as sweet as I thought it would be, but like everything else we had that night, it made sense in the context of the meal. It was a very fitting final course.
After the persimmon, we were served small cups of roasted green tea. We took our time savoring the simplicity of the tea, but after we finished, our cups kept getting refilled. There was no rush for us to leave the restaurant.
I then started to think back and tried to remember everything we ate. We guessed that we had 25-30 courses during our three-hour meal. Yes, 25-30 courses. Yes, a three-hour meal. Despite the small interruption, our experience at Urasawa was one we will never forget. It was easily the best meal of my life and, to us, it was worth every penny.
As we sipped away on our roasted green tea, we found out more about Hiro-San. He likes to surf any chance he gets, he practices Karate, he’s in his 40’s, and he says he has no complaints about his life.
I can only hope that by the time I reach 40, I am as confident in my place in the world as Hiro-San.